International Conference 2022

Concepts of Humans and Nature in Historical Perspective: Universals and Variations, Continuities and Transformations

The Research Training Group 1876 "Early Concepts of Humans and Nature: Universal, Specific, Interchanged" invites to its International Conference "Concepts of Humans and Nature in Historical Perspective: Universals and Variations, Continuities and Transformations" to be held in 2022 on September, 6th–8th at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz (Germany).


The conference aims at presenting the results of the RTG’s current research projects and bringing them together in an interdisciplinary dialogue, which is particularly dedicated to exploring the fundamental components of concepts concerning humans and the natural environment that can be regarded as constant or universal.


Despite the cultural diversity and historical variability in the ways in which different societies conceptualize humans and nature, the complex and cross-culturally diverse concepts are often based on core principles or fundamental building blocks that have a universal character (in terms of relative universals). For example, across languages and cultures, one usually finds terms that designate physical (corporeal) components and qualities of the human being as well as terms for properties or aspects of the human being that can be glossed with words such as “consciousness”, “self”, “soul(s)”, “life force” or “mind”. Moreover, there is a great diversity and cross-cultural variability in the conception of the human body and its physiological processes, as well as significant differences in the ways specific corporeal and non-corporeal components constituting a human being are named, defined, differentiated and perceived as interrelated. This raises questions as to which extent there are relatively stable basic or core concepts about the human being (and the body) that occur universally and to which extent such concepts are socio-culturally constructed, discursively shaped, subject to historical changes, and are therefore variable.


The concept of “nature”, in the way it is shaped by the Western European tradition (especially in contrast to the term “culture”), cannot claim universality, as anthropological and historical studies have shown. However, throughout history, every society and culture has formed aspects and objects of its own concept and theory formation (e.g., in cosmologies, myths, etc.), embracing entities of the world such as flora, fauna, natural space, but also cosmic entities and fundamental physical elements. Moreover, anthropological studies (e.g., Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (2013)) postulate a limited set of elementary cognitive schemata that cultures of different times and places selectively use to structure and organize their perceptions about “humans” and “nature” (i.e. non-human beings and entities of the world) and their relations to each other. These schemata, which serve as frameworks for cultural models, cosmologies and social practices, consist in different ways of defining similarities and differences between humans and other beings based on specific properties ascribed to them. Common elements of cosmologies typical for premodern civilizations are, for example, notions of hierarchy (setting different beings in a scale of gradual differences), but also concepts of analogy between the human sphere and the cosmos, and of resemblances, correspondences, and relations between different beings and entities in the world. Examples for systems of thought based on analogies and correspondences are often found in ancient scholarly models and theories, such as the Greco-Roman system of the four humors/elements, the medical theory of signatures or astrology. Which basic schemata or universal building blocks for cosmological systems can we trace in the historical records reaching back to antiquity?


In two panels focusing on “(human) body” and “humans and nature” respectively, the conference aims to explore questions about both universal concepts and concepts whose specific occurrence can be historically determined. Possible fields of investigation and research questions are as follows:


  • Which concepts related to the human body (e.g., concepts of life, disease, death, creation, destruction, violence, etc.) are common across different times and societies?
  • Are there recurring or constant concepts related to the human body, in terms of its functions, dysfunctions, transience, properties, or with regard to its gendered nature?
  • In which similar ways and through which similar discourses and practices are concepts of the body and concepts of nature socio-culturally shaped?
  • Which cultural practices, social contexts, experiences and cognitive processes produce (or condition) these similarities?
  • Which common models, theories, representations and forms of expression have been developed and transmitted in order to understand and explain humans and nature?
  • What is the relationship between humans and nature in the societies under analysis? Are there overarching or recurring patterns (e.g., of opposition, binary, analogy)? Is the human being understood as part of nature and considered to be similar to other beings? Are there delimitations or hierarchies? Are there similar, recurring relationships and interaction patterns between humans and nature?